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March 8, 2007

Who’s the No. 1 pick? Oden or Durant

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With March Madness rapidly approaching, we thought we'd tackle the question everybody seems to be asking and talking about these days. Who would you take with the first pick in the 2007 NBA Draft? Kevin Durant, the lean, scoring machine from the University of Texas or Greg Oden, the most highly coveted big man since Shaq.

Before we give a simple answer to the question, let's talk a step back and analyze the entire state of the game as it relates to high school, college and the professional ranks. Oden was the No. 1 prospect in his class since late in his ninth grade year (overtaking current Louisville freshman Derrick Caracter) and would have been the No. 1 pick of last year's draft if he were eligible and maybe the No. 1 pick of the 2005 NBA Draft, too.

Oden is that good, so even to be having this discussion means Durant must be having a phenomenal year and must have improved immensely even since last year's post-season national high school all-star games, right?

Well, not really. We first saw Durant in person playing for Oak Hill Academy at the Top of the World Tournament in Southern California back in December of 2004. Even then, we stated he was a lottery pick waiting to happen although it wasn't necessarily easy to see. Durant was a little young for his class (unlike a lot of the top players in the nation who are 19 or going on 19 as high school seniors), but had that long wingspan and a good shooting touch.

Fast forward to the practices at the McDonald's All-American game last spring. Durant, who spent his senior season at Montrose Christian in his native Maryland, was consistently nailing deep jumpers and showed marked improvement in his ball-handling skills since his junior season. It all culminated for him in the actual game when he led the West All-Stars to victory with a 25-point, five-rebound, four-assist performance. Many felt he was closing the gap between himself and Oden, even then, as the top prospect in the Class of 2006.

In reality, both should be in the NBA already (speaking of McDonald's, since when can't 18 and 19-year olds choose their career profession whether it be flipping burgers or playing pro ball?) and it's not a coincidence that Durant may be the first freshman ever named national college player of the year the season after the 19-year old draft rule was implemented by the NBA Players Association.

Consider was what said on-air by Bill Packer (CBS' color commentator during the NCAA Tournament and a fixture at the Final Four every year since 1974) during the 2001 tournament: "This season Duke's Shane Battier will in all likelihood be the national player of the year. Right now, there are 13 college All-Americans who still would have eligibility remaining if they didn't declare early for the NBA Draft. In essence, Battier would be a third team All-American if those guys were still in school."

To further illustrate his point, Packer wasn't even including prep-to-pros like Tracy McGrady, who would have been a college senior during 2000-2001 or Rashard Lewis, who would have been a junior for some lucky college prior to the NBA Draft's hardship rules. Simply put, since 1995 Student Sports National Player of the Year Kevin Garnett started the prep-to-pros phenomenon that lasted 10 years, the college game has been void of great individual talent and that has manifested itself to the point where fans are in awe of Durant's game.

College basketball, the game itself, is strong and the NCAA Tournament is the most exciting single-game elimination tournament in sports. But let's face it, unlike the NBA, college basketball is a coaches' game: Coach K, Coach Izzo, the General Robert Montgomery Knight. Before the mass exodus of top high school talent directly to the pros, it wasn't really like that. Quick, name Ralph Sampson's coach at Virginia or Oscar Robertson's coach at Cincinnati….You probably can't.

Now let's analyze what Durant is actually doing. He's averaging over 25 points per game and 11 rebounds and in Big 12 Conference play tack on an additional eight points and two rebounds. Quite impressive, but for those of you that remember what Chris Jackson did in his freshman season at LSU in 1989, not unheard of. If you had watched Durant play before last fall, his offensive game and numbers are really not that surprising considering the flexibility he has in Texas' offense. His rebounding numbers are quite impressive and probably the most surprising element of his game this season, but with his physical make-up those rebounding numbers would drop as an NBA rookie, at least until he's more physically developed in terms of strength. And let's face it, he's going to get paid handsomely in the NBA and he's part of this argument for his ability to put the ball in the hole, not for his rebounding skills.

Durant's abilities as a scoring forward are much easier to come by than Oden's ability and knowledge of the defensive aspects of the game as a seven footer, not to mention his zeal to actually want to play on the defensive end. Durant is having a great season no doubt, but when it comes to discussion about whom else can be player of the year, the answer is usually, "Who else is there?"

Durant's productivity against today's watered down talent pool speaks volumes about the lack of individual talent in the college game more than anything. Durant isn't "redefining" anything or necessarily having the best freshman season in college basketball since freshman became eligible in the early 1970's. Is he necessarily playing better than Jackson did in '89 or better than Mark Macon did at Temple the year before when he led the Owls to the Elite Eight? Unless the 'Horns capture the national title, can you really say he had a better freshman campaign than Carmelo Anthony did four years ago?

Let's go back to 1991-1992 when Chris Webber of Michigan was gathering headlines as a freshman much like the way Durant is this winter. Webber wasn't even close to being named national player of the year or even first team All-American. Players like Duke's Christian Laettner, USC's Harold Miner, LSU's Shaquille O'Neal, Ohio State's Jimmy Jackson and Georgetown's Alonzo Mourning would be viable player of the year candidates against Durant back then or now. Then you throw in the mix players like Tennessee's Allan Houston, Indiana's Calbert Cheaney, Duke's Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill, Maryland's Walt Williams, St. John's Malik Sealy, Arizona's Chris Mills not to mention second tier All-Americans like Alabama's Robert Horry and Latrell Sprewell, Missouri's Anthony Peeler, Long Beach State's Lucious Harris, Arkansas' Toddy Day and Lee Mayberry plus Georgia's Litterial Green. When you look back at the crop of players that Webber faced entering college basketball, it's easy to see why Durant's freshman season in gathering so much attention today especially when players like Josh Smith, Gerald Green, Monta Ellis and of course, LeBron James, weren't affected by the 19-year old rule and technically still would have college eligibility remaining.

Let's forget a minute about the lack of star players in today's college game combined with the 19-year old rule that magnifies Durant's abilities and compare the two players more closely. Oden's perceived lack of offensive game is myth. Coming off surgery to his right (shooting) wrist that forced him to miss the first seven games of the season, Oden is averaging over 15 points per game on a team with good perimeter shooting. Not only does Oden command defensive attention and create offensive opportunities for the No. 1 ranked team in the country, he barely takes a bad shot and is shooting almost 66 percent from the field. Certainly, Oden's offensive game (his weakness) is better than Durant's defensive game (his weakness), in fact much better.

Defensively, Oden's instincts have scouts drooling. Forget his rebounding numbers (10.1 per) or his 3.6 blocks per game. Even if he wasn't the most athletic, legit seven footer in a generation, scouts would still be enamored with his knowledge of defensive positioning and weakside rotation, his timing and patience in going for blocks and his ability to stay out of foul trouble. In fact, Oden hasn't fouled out of a game this season.

Considering he can also shoot relatively well with his off hand, Oden doesn't have any glaring weaknesses as a seven-footer. His only weakness might be his unselfishness at the offensive end, but that can be easily corrected and will be at the next level. In fact, his humble demeanor and unselfishness are a plus at this point in his career. When he does need to become more assertive offensively, he'll have no trouble making that adjustment, especially after his wrist fully heals.

Durant has a game, as a college forward, that we haven't seen in quite some time but Oden is a pivot prospect unlike any other we've seen on the college level or we've seen head straight to the pros from high school and there's a huge difference between the two. Oden's traits as a complete pivot player are at much more of a premium than Durant's as a scoring forward. Regardless of Despite Durant's impact as a first-year college player, which is overblown anyway because of the lack of individual talent in today's college game, Oden is still the better and safer long term prospect for an NBA franchise and our choice as the No. 1 pick in the next NBA Draft.

Comments? Email ronnie@studentsports.com

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